To draw visitors, zoos count on gentle giraffes rolling out their long tongues to grasp treats, stingrays gliding through a pool to be petted and the playful tussling of tiger cubs. This year they're also getting help from the recession.
Zoos in cities including Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Mo., and Memphis, Tenn., report higher attendance as consumers look for affordable entertainment closer to home.
"We are trying to be more careful in our spending, and this is a great way to do that and be with family," said Noelle Bragg, 42, of Springboro, about 35 miles from Cincinnati. "Gas prices are rising again, and we don't have to drive far to have a really good time."
Bragg, her son and nephew had just finished feeding a giraffe at the Cincinnati Zoo.
More than 58 percent of 120 members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums responding to an April survey reported attendance increases year-over-year.
Attendance at the Cincinnati Zoo rose 34 percent — to more than 372,000 visitors — in the first five months of this year.
At the Saint Louis Zoo, which charges for some attractions but not admission, attendance jumped 13 percent to 1.2 million visitors as of June 4. The increase surprised zoo officials, who had planned for a potential drop in visitors because of major road construction.
While certain exhibits — such as Zoo Babies in Cincinnati and a rain forest exhibit in Kansas City — help push the numbers up, the bad economy also pushed visitors through the gates.
"It's difficult to know exactly, but we're speculating that the economy is a factor," said Eric Miller, senior vice president at the Saint Louis Zoo. "Also, when people are stressed, they seem to turn more to family events and entertainment. A lot of zoos saw an upturn after 9/11."
Zoos say memberships allowing unlimited visits annually and benefits such as discounts for special events are appealing to economy-minded consumers. The Cincinnati Zoo's household memberships were up more than 6 percent to about 47,000 by the end of May.
Sarah Anderson, of Cincinnati, her husband and 1-year-old son have visited the zoo six or seven times this year on their membership.
"If our son gets cranky, we can go home and not feel like we've wasted our money," Anderson, 26, said as she pushed her son in a stroller at the giraffe exhibit.
Attendance has grown even as some zoos deal with funding cuts.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore reports about the same number of visitors as last year but the 2009 season is shorter. The zoo closed longer this winter to offset state funding cuts and prevent staff reductions.
Attendance climbed to more then 54,000 in April — the first full month of operation — compared with nearly 48,000 last April, and family memberships were up about 10 percent, zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said.
The Kansas City Zoo's budget was cut 20 percent last year, while attendance has increased about 32 percent over the first five months of 2008 and memberships are up about 8 percent. The zoo cut staff and is closing an hour earlier to help reduce labor costs.
The zoo is using the economy in its marketing.
"All our ads talk about the value of zoo visits to families," Director Randy Whistoff said.
Zoos say another financial attraction for consumers is that many zoos around the country honor each other's memberships with free or discounted admission.
General admission can range from $6 to more than $20 for adults and $3 to more than $15 for children depending on the zoo, but the average basic admission runs about $10 to $13 for adults and $6 to $8 for children, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Many zoos offer higher priced "best value" admissions that cover parking and admission to attractions that might not be covered by general admission. At the San Diego Zoo, a one-day "best value" ticket that includes unlimited use of zoo buses and an aerial tram costs $35 for adults and $26 for children.
While the Memphis Zoo also reported higher attendance — up 16 percent to more than 410,000 — the Denver Zoo and the North Carolina Zoo are tracking about the same as last year. Officials say that's still good news amid continual weekend storms in Denver and concern about natural falloff from the high turnout for last year's debut of a new elephant and rhino exhibit.
"We're happy that we're holding our own when a lot of other attractions are losing attendance," said North Carolina Zoo spokesman Tom Gillespie. "We seem to be getting more local people staying closer to home this year."
If there's a downside for zoos, it may be in visitors' spending once they arrive.
"We've seen a little softening on the gift side of concessions and more conservative spending on private parties and company picnics," said Denver Zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie. "I think people are trying to be more frugal."
Bragg's mother appreciates the chance to keep the wallet closed once through the gates.
"You don't have to spend anything extra if don't want to. You can even bring your own snacks," said Virginia Giron, of Centerville. She brings her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to the Cincinnati Zoo on her annual membership, which cost about $150.